Empty Homes Open the Door to a Rental Scam

Tips on how renters and owners can spot and avoid the latest wave of rental scam con tricks: Internet Scambusters #393

Whether you’re in the market to rent or looking to rent
out your home, you could be locked in the sights of a
rental scam trickster.

With more empty homes than ever — thanks to
recession-driven foreclosures — rental scams are
costing innocent victims a fortune, while landlords
seeking tenants face a continuing onslaught of advance
payment Nigerian scams.

We have the details, 12 suspicious signals to watch
for, and some simple steps you can take to avoid
getting snared.

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And now for the main feature…

Empty Homes Open the Door to a Rental Scam

Rental scam artists are taking advantage of the flood
of neglected, empty houses on the real estate market
caused by the huge increase in recession-driven

Homes owned by banks and other financial institutions
may take months or even years to sell, leaving them
unchecked for the duration and sitting targets for the

In one recently reported case, an individual lived in
and paid rent on a house for 15 months before
discovering it was a rental scam and that the
“landlord” didn’t own the house.

Often, the crooks gain entry by breaking open lock
boxes, and sometimes they even change the locks so the
real owners or their representatives can’t get in.

In addition, as we previously reported, rental scams
for apartments advertised on the Internet are also on
the rise — with both owners and renters falling

Craigslist Warning: Selling a Home? Be Sure Scammers Don’t Rent It First

Scams targeting renters

Most commonly, the con artists merely copy listings of
genuine house and apartment sales or rentals,
re-advertising them with a different email address or
phone number (usually a cell phone).

Or they tour neighborhoods and scour newspaper legal
notices, to identify empty, foreclosed homes that they
can commandeer.

If the scammers can break in, they’ll happily show
their victims around, posing as either the owner or an

If not, they’ll claim they’re out of the country or
make some other excuse as to why they can’t show you
the home.

But these con artists will send photos (also “lifted”
from the original ads or realtor listings) and maybe
even a set of fake keys in exchange for the rental
payment — thereby delaying victims’ discovery that
they’ve been scammed.

A particularly sneaky trick that targets would-be
renters happens when the scammer actually does rent a

He then advertises it as being available, showing the
place to prospective tenants while he lives there and
collecting first and last month fees, and maybe an
additional security deposit from each one, before
skipping the scene.

Rental scams targeting owners

Many of the cases where owners are the rental scam
victims bear all the signs of an advance payment
Nigerian scam, tricking the victim into forwarding
electronic cash to the crook.

In these cases, the scammer usually claims to be out of
the country and may also tell a convincing tale
suggesting the rent will be paid by a relative who owes
them money, a corporate sponsor or an international
charity or aid agency.

In each case, the owner receives a check for more than
the rental cost, with a request that the balance should
be forwarded to the “renter.” The check bounces, of
course, and the owner is out of pocket for the cash
they wired.

12 Signs of a Rental Scam

Often, your instinct will let you know there’s
something not quite right about a proposed rental deal,
but here are 12 tell-tale signs that suggest
something’s amiss:

General (typical of a Nigerian scam):

1. Communication is exclusively by email or cell phone.

2. The “owner” or “renter” claims to be out of the

3. Communication is urgent — the person seems in a
hurry to close the deal immediately.

4. Messages use poor spelling and grammar and,
frequently, religious terms like “God Bless.”

For Renters:

5. The house has a “For Sale” but not a “For Rent”

6. The lock box is broken or the “agent” appears to
have his own, different key to let you in.

7. The “owner” or “managing agent” is based out of

8. The home appears to contain someone else’s personal

9. The rental sum is lower than the going rate for the

For Owners:

10. The inquirer asks questions that are already
answered in your flyer or ad (like when the place is
available or what the rent will be).

11. The “renter” claims he’s prepared to take the deal
sight-unseen (usually a prelude to an advance fee

12. The “renter” requests that you buy things or hire a
contractor to do some work on the place first (usually
the scammer is the “contractor”).

Don’t forget, too, that vacation rental scams provide
another real estate route for the crooks to get into
your wallet. You can read about them in one of our
recent articles about holiday scams, How to Spot a Holiday Scam — and Find Genuine Bargains.

Rental Scams: What You Can Do

Whether you’re an owner or a renter, you can
dramatically cut the risk of being scammed by taking
just a few simple safety measures:

* Always seek and confirm the identity of the person
you’re dealing with. You want a confirmable name and
address or even a notarized ID. For renters, you should
be able to confirm ownership of the property on county

* Check out average rental prices in the locality.
Realtors and managing agents can help. Or visit a site
like RentBits.com, which compiles rates for big
metropolitan areas.

* Never rent or lease a home sight unseen. When you
think of it, who would really agree to such a thing?

* Never wire money to someone you don’t know, no matter
how plausible their story, and never hand over cash for
rent or deposit without confirming ownership (as
discussed above) and without seeing, reading, and
double-checking any lease agreement before signing.

* If you own but don’t live in a home (whether it’s for
rent or not) keep a close, regular eye on it and, if
you do rent it out, change the locks between tenancies.

* If you’re renting, it may be preferable to work with
a bona fide rental agency. Some owners do legitimately
rent out privately, but just be more wary when dealing
with them.

The Federal Trade Commission has also published one of
its consumer alerts which provides further useful

It’s bad enough that the slump in the real estate
market has led not only to growing numbers of
foreclosures, but also foreclosure scams. Don’t allow
crooks to make it even worse by falling for a rental
scam too.

That’s all we have for today, but we’ll be back next
week with another issue. See you then!